There’s a lot going on in today’s marriages: commutes, work, deadlines, keeping the house together, fitting in time with friends, self-care, and just the general maintenance of life leaves many couples feeling exhausted at the end of the day. When you throw kids, pets or taking care of aging parents into that mix, it can tip couples right over the edge of time management.
With all of these things competing for your time and attention, people often end up looking to their partner to save the day, help out and “pull their weight.” You start watching everything they do and comparing it to what you do. In effect, you start keeping score in your relationship. This inevitably leads to feelings of resentment, anxiety, frustration and disappointment. Not the feelings you want if you’re looking for a connected, happy and satisfying relationship. Whether you’ve been together 10 months or 10 years, keeping score and competing often becomes an unwelcome component of many relationships.
How do you stop it? Well, first you have to realize what you’re doing and why. There are basically four ways that keeping score in your relationship is setting you up to lose:
#1: Keeping Score Sets You Up on Opposite Sides
We say things like: “I drove Matt to baseball on Tuesday, so it’s your turn to take Sophie to soccer practice on Thursday.” Or, the one I hate the most: “It’s your TURN to put away the dishes.”
Do you hear yourself? It’s your turn?! Taking turns happens in games and sports. If you’re treating your relationship like a game – I can tell you right now – you’re going to lose! You want to know why? Because keeping score like this in your relationship puts you and your partner on opposite teams! Think about it: this sets one of you up to win, and one of you to lose. How do you expect to have a connected, loving relationship when there’s an underlying tension of someone losing? This kind of thinking worms itself into the foundation of your relationship and, before long, you’re going to see a lot of cracks if not actual walls crumbling down.
I need you to get out of the keeping score mindset and, instead, think of you and your partner as being on the same team. This means you are one, shared resource. So, pulling energy from your partner, really means pulling energy from yourself. Your team becomes drained and it’s hard to win the game when your team is tapped out.
What do you do to stop this behavior? My answer is to add resources instead of always looking to your partner to fill in the blanks or “pick up the slack.” Instead of thinking that it’s your partner’s turn to clean the bathroom, why not figure out how to hire a cleaning person so neither of you has to do it and you can use the resources of the couple for other, more important things (like having rock star sex, relaxing, or finally getting to that dentist appointment you’ve been putting off?). If you don’t have money, you can do things like bartering (Hey best friend, can you help me clean the garage and I’ll help you with X, buy you lunch or just give you my undying loyalty?) or you could try swapping, (Hey mother of my kid’s best friend that I barely speak to, can you car pool on Tuesdays and I’ll do Thursdays?). There are many ways to add resources to your relationship instead of exhausting the players on your team. If you’re both stressed and overwhelmed, it’s not helping anyone.
Remember that when you constantly look to your partner to “do their part” you’re actually taking away from yourself.
#2: Keeping Score Stops You from Listening and Connecting
Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’ve set up the car pools for the kids for the week, you’ve shopped for and made dinner (and this was difficult because of little Jimmy’s recently diagnosed gluten allergy), you’ve emailed back and forth all day about some things you needed to do for a PTA meeting on Wednesday, you stopped and picked up your husband’s dry cleaning and you scheduled a guy to take down the big tree whose roots have made your driveway look like a skatepark. Then, your husband gets home and thinks it’s a good idea to sneak in some sex before you all have to go pick up the kids from their respective sports practices. You’re exhausted already and still have a full night of kids, homework, baths and more emails and you’ve time managed yourself down to the second to get all this done. You did NOT factor in sex with your hubby. When you rebuff his advances he complains, “You never want to have sex anymore – you don’t make time for me!” You’re pissed and you quickly start to tick off your LONG list of all the things you’ve done today.
This is keeping score. You’ve got your scorecard (and it’s full) so you think you’re covered. Well, you’re not and, once again, this competition puts you in the loser’s seat. If it was up to your husband, he’d rather you all ordered in a pizza, the kids went to bed slightly stinky and he got a blow job! Your list means nothing to him. The things on your list are all about what you deem important and necessary. He’s right that you don’t prioritize and make time for him. Again, if a strong marriage is your goal, and your partner tells you he feels ignored in some way, then listing all the ways you don’t ignore him isn’t the answer! Your scorecard doesn’t matter to him! Instead, ask your partner what he would like to see more of in the relationship. What could you do to let him know you’re a priority? Reading off your list is about being you being “right” – it’s not about your partner (or you) being happy.
The next time you’re in an argument with your partner and he asks for something, instead of listing all the things you did do (so how could he possibly feel that way?) listen to what he’s saying and do that! Understand that, despite how much you’ve done, it’s not what he wanted from you.
The third way that keeping score in your relationship makes you lose is because:
#3: Equal Time Doesn’t Mean Equal Value
Nothing in a relationship is “fair” or equal if you look at it from a time perspective. The problem with looking at your relationship from a time perspective is that it doesn’t take into account the value of what’s being done, irrespective of time.
I call this the lions and hyenas effect. You know how in a pride of lions the women do the majority of the work? The lionesses hunt and care for the young which takes up a majority of their waking hours. Meanwhile, the males are sleeping and lying around. Seems unfair, no? Well, it’s really not. You see, those lions have a few very important jobs which are vital to the survival of the pride, but they just don’t take as much time as the jobs the lionesses have. The males are all about defending and fighting when those hyenas come around. This is a big job and it’s no less crucial than what the females do. The fact that they don’t have to do it as much as the females have to hunt is inconsequential.
Think of your own home. You and your partner both do things for the family, but it likely takes up very different amounts of time or energy. Regardless of the time you put in, both of your “jobs” are valuable.
Another point close to this is that equal time doesn’t mean equal bandwidth. For example, it takes me less time to grocery shop than my partner. I’m better at it and I don’t hate it. So, guess what? I do the grocery shopping even though I work more hours than he does. Because, for me, it takes very little of my bandwidth or my mental energy to get the grocery shopping done. For my partner to do it, takes a huge amount of energy, searching for things in the supermarket, trying to remember what kind of milk we use, etc. So, why don’t I just do it? Remember, if we’re a shared resource (my partner and I) then we’re using up less resources in the relationship if I do the grocery shopping despite the fact that this means I put in more hours in the work of our relationship.
My partner makes me feel safe and loved. At the end of the day, these two things are worth a TON so keeping score with how many hours we both put into things is a waste of my time and would be hurting the relationship and not honoring his very valuable contributions.
The fourth and final way that keeping score in your relationship makes you lose is because:
#4: Being Happy for Your Partner Equals a Happy Marriage
When you keep score you set yourself up to be competing with your partner. By default, this means you won’t be happy when your partner shares good news. How can you be? If you’re competing and they do well, it means you’re losing! So, instead of being happy that your partner got a promotion, you end up thinking (or saying): “Well, good for you that you got a promotion and now get to travel to Europe for work. I’ll just be stuck at home taking care of the kids!” When they get something good, you get resentful. You act as if they scored a goal and you’re the loser watching it happen. Sound familiar?
Famed marriage expert, John Gottman, has shown in his research that not being able to connect over each other’s good news spells failure for many relationships. He calls these “disaster couples” and with these disaster couples he found that “When one person in the relationship shared the good news of, say, a promotion at work with excitement, the other would respond with wooden disinterest by checking his watch or shutting the conversation down with a comment like, “That’s nice.””
Don’t be a disaster couple! Remember, you’re a shared resource. Stop focusing so much on yourself and focus on the two of you together. If one player on a basketball team is the greatest player ever, but never passes the ball and doesn’t work with his teammates, they’re never going to be champions. It’s the team that makes it to the Finals, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup or World Series, not the individual. The only time one person wins something is in golf or tennis and those are solo sports. Again, if you want the marriage to win, you need to stop keeping score for yourself. Be a team player and know that everyone on the team is valuable, not just the ones with the most playing time or scores.
Being there for your partner when the going gets rough is obviously important, but the research has shown that being there for your partner when the going goes right is actually more important for relationship satisfaction and happiness. So, make sure that you are your partner’s biggest support and cheerleader.
Be aware when your partner shares good news and show active interest in what they’re telling you; be their biggest support and source of excitement.
No matter what else you do, stop keeping score and start seeing you and your partner as one, shared resource!